The SAT is changing, but not enough


The Washington Post

By now you’ve probably heard the news.

The SAT is reverting to a 1600-point scale and making the essay portion of the test optional. The vocabulary words and math sections are changing and the guessing penalty (where you were penalized for getting a question wrong instead of not answering it) has been eliminated.

“What?” you may well say. “But the SAT just changed to include that essay.” Ah, but then its rival, the ACT, started to take over the SAT’s market share. The College Board, which administers the SAT, insists that the changes will make the test do a better job of reflecting what students learn.

In my experience, “more reflective of what students learn in high school” always is a nicer way of saying “easier.” How could it not be? Look at what people are actually learning. Less and less, every day. Employers, when asked if college students strike them as at all ready for the workforce, have stopped responding and just emit a low chuckle, gazing off into the distance.

Frankly, the SAT has not changed enough.

Sure, the vocabulary words are no longer what the New York Times describes as “arcane ‘SAT words.’ ” This is completely right. After all, we wouldn’t want to have SAT words on the SAT. It is no place for them. They should be locked away and forgotten. Goodbye, “deprecatory” and “membranous.” Hello, “synthesis” and “empirical.” Even that’s too much, in my opinion. Why learn any words that aren’t just “synergy,” over and over again? It’s a great all-purpose word that you can use in the classroom, in the workplace and in the home. Synergy! Never leave home without it! Forget “pleonasm” and “squaloid.” Who do you think you are, William F. Buckley? Learning words is for people who don’t have games on their phones to keep them occupied on winter evenings.

The SAT will now include excerpts from important source documents — such as the Constitution or “Letter From the Birmingham Jail.” Testing actual information? Still? What is this, 1600? (The year, not the score.)

At least the SAT got rid of the penalty for guessing. Rewarding people for not volunteering an answer when they know they don’t have one is a very poor idea. The supply of Strong Opinions About the Situation in Ukraine would dry up in a day.

Maybe I am a little bitter about the change. I was part of the goshforsaken Class of 2006, when nobody knew what standard the colleges would want to look at so we were forced to take every available SAT: The 1600-point one, with analogies and no essays. The 2400-point version, with the essay section where you could cite anything regardless of the truth of your assertion. The 83-point SAT, something offered by a guy in a trench coat outside my high school and for which my mother sent me to eight test-prep classes. The 1600-pointer was the most useful because that’s the one you can use to compare your performance with the SAT scores of celebrities.

And I was even a good test-taker! This brought me no boons. If you do poorly on the SAT, you can go on and have a nice life. If you do well on the SAT, you spend the rest of your days awkwardly attempting to work your score into the conversation, and it never goes over quite as well as you hoped. All the skills on which you were tested are active hindrances to real success. Give me a passage to analyze for grammatical errors, and I instantly pinpoint the “who/whom” confusion. Unfortunately, this habit, like a useless and frankly somewhat inconvenient superpower, does not disappear after the SAT, and it greatly limits your invitations to parties. Setting up the expectation that you will be rewarded when you point out triumphantly that “there should be a semicolon here” is a cruel joke to play on a person at a formative stage of life.

Basically, the SAT used to test things such as grammar, reading ability and the size of a person’s vocabulary. But possessing grammar, reading ability and a vocabulary are active hazards these days, at college if not in the world at large. The SAT will test less now. But it should test far, far less. It really should consist of just one question: “Can you use Google?” And a follow-up: “Are you willing to pay somebody a grotesque amount of money to spend four years drinking?” If the answer to both questions is “Yes,” you are all set for a great college career.

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